The leaders of Argentina’s main opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio, have condemned the government over its intentions to tackle hate on social media platforms, describing it as an attack on freedom of speech.
Speaking at a meeting of the Economic and Social Council at the Kirchner Cultural Centre (CCK) on Tuesday, Strategic Affairs Secretary Gustavo Beliz revealed President Alberto Fernández’s government wants to launch a new project to tackle “social hatred” online and prevent the "intoxication of the spirit of democracy."
Béliz, who chairs the council, said that the government is working on “a pioneering study” that would propose a “pact for the proper use of social networks." The secretary, who is seen as a key ally of President Fernández, who also attended the meeting, said the step is necessary, arguing that online hate is damaging Argentina’s democratic system.
According to the official, 40 universities have been enlisted to assist in the drawing up of guidelines for social media platforms, as well as propose initiatives.
While the proposal was thin on actual details, Beliz called on Argentines to put an end to “social hatred” and instead be “counter-cultural” and opt instead for a “social pact” that would improve “how we relate to each other as compatriots.
The proposal sparked an immediate pushback from the opposition, which accused the government of trying to “censor” freedom of expression.
The president of the Radical Civic Union (UCR) caucus in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, Mario Negri, said: "It's not the social networks, it's the story, the impunity, the lack of exemplarity, the obscenity of power. Respect the National Constitution, that's enough."
"They can dress it up however they want, but trying to regulate/control social networks is not only unconstitutional, it is pure and simple authoritarianism," said the lawmaker in a post on Twitter.
Former president Mauricio Macri added his voice to the criticism with a post on Facebook, in which he declared himself “an absolutist for freedom of expression.”
"Unlike most of the leaders of the ruling party, including the president and the vice-president, I have never blocked a user on Twitter and I never will. No matter what they say," said the PRO leader.
"From my point of view, the only limit that should exist for public expressions on social networks or any communication platform are those contemplated by the National Constitution and the criminal code,” he remarked. “Everything else is censorship or surveillance.”
A number of social media users in turn pushed back against Macri’s claim of being an “absolutist,” with several recalling the case of a 20-year-old citizen who was charged with "public intimidation" in 2016 after he posted a tweet online citing a song that called for the ex-president to be killed.
Others recalled espionage allegations and heavy handed policing at protests and demonstrations that took place during Macri's 2015-2019 government.
Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta also criticised the government's initiative, saying he considered it "unacceptable and unconstitutional."
"Any limit to freedom of expression is an attempt to erode our democracy and we are absolutely opposed to it," said the City leader.
Government spokesperson Gabriela Cerruti challenged those views, declaring in her own post on Twitter that “what erodes democracy is when a head of government instals fake news.”
"Networks for the common good is a programme of the Economic and Social Council that was born from the accession of the Argentine Republic to the Pact for Information and Democracy promoted by France and Germany on the basis of an initiative of [the NGO] Reporters without Borders," she explained
Beliz, writing in the Perfil newspaper this week, said that the plan was to “build broad consensus over good practices on the Internet” with advice from “national and international specialists.”
The government said in a statement that the plan is “neither an attempt to regulate social networks, nor to violate freedom of expression, much less to subjugate any constitutional right.”
To suggest otherwise “is far from the truth,” government officials told the Noticias Argentinas news agency.
In 2020, the government introduced an “Observatory of Disinformation and Symbolic Violence in Media and Digital Platforms,” which is known as 'Nodio.' The body, which monitors "fake news,” was also strongly criticised by the opposition upon its introduction.